“I hadn’t really realized how much of an impact current events were having on me and my ability to keep up with my dissertation.” The words, from a beloved client, crystallized what many people have been feeling. It’s a chaotic time in the country and in the world. For some dissertation writers, it’s a frustrating time personally as well. I’ve had trouble myself focusing on writing the last few weeks, as I’ve dealt with exterminators coming into and out of my house, a plumbing emergency, and, most recently, cat scratch fever induced by one of my beloved cats.
Focusing on what you can influence
So how do we turn this around? How do we focus in the middle of chaos, whether that chaos is personal or political, or both? How do we still create? How do we still focus on our research? I was having such a hard time with this myself that I turned to several writer and researcher friends and asked them how they did it. The answers varied, but a few stood out.
My friend Sam, a music professor at West Virginia University, said that he believes that all he can control is his “little corner of the world,” and that by focusing on that and being excellent in it, he contributes to the greater good. I found that answer somewhat satisfying, but it made me still sort of restless.
Another friend, who is working on a history book, said that he did take time away from his academic work this summer to do some campaigning and community work, and that doing so made him realize that he even more needed to finish the book, so that he could “get back out there.” This answer was somewhat more satisfying to me, because I liked how the writer was acknowledging that he wanted to be active in his community, but that he also had a prior commitment to his academic work.
Then my friend Joy, who is a novelist, said that she sees her writing as a job. “Think about it,” she said. “You wouldn’t walk off your job to watch the news or go protest or even lament about what was happening. You’d just keep doing your job.”
It was simple, but it made sense. Yet so many writers, particularly academic writers, don’t really see their writing this way. It is difficult to see the day-to-day involvement in one’s writing as important when there are so many other demands in our lives. It gets even harder when we are going through difficult times. But what I would like to suggest is a variation on what Joy said.
Writing as an anchor
I’d like to suggest that you see your writing as an anchor. As the one thing you can come back to every day, or if not every day, at least several times a week, for whatever time frame you decide to give it. It might be an hour, or it might be only fifteen minutes, but you can slip into that space and let it anchor you.
When chaos is swirling around you, the work itself can become the proverbial eye of the hurricane. Now I know what you might be saying. You might be saying that you already avoid the work, so why on earth see something that is already so difficult as a point of calm.
I get it. I understand, because I’ve been there. When I was first writing my dissertation, I used to go into the bathroom and lay down on the hard tile and press on my stomach because I would have panic attacks. If this is the case for you, I suggest seeking out someone who can help you break down that fear.
But if you are past that fear, or can get past it, what you’ll come to see is that the writing practice can be the one thing that you can count on. It will provide you a way to touch base with yourself and to reconnect with the work that you love. On some level, you began your thesis or dissertation or book project because you loved it, right?
Well, now you’re beyond that initial infatuation stage with the project but you can still connect with it like you would an old friend. Or, if you just can’t muster any warm feelings at all — and that’s also common — you can treat it as a place of normalcy.
Everything may be chaos, but just remember: it’s not going to be less chaotic if you don’t keep writing your dissertation. Carving out just a little time each day is not going to wreak even more havoc upon the world. If anything, it will help you progress that much more on your project and then you’ll likely feel like you CAN take time out to engage in community events. And who knows? Whatever you’re working on, it might, just might even make the world better.